Scratching away at success

Scratching away at success

They’re little more than chunks of skin and fat in a bag. But pork scratchings have provided one Staffordshire company with a lucrative serving of tasty overseas markets. Jon Griffin reports.

It’s the pub snack unlike any other – with a customer base from Birmingham to Bilston, and from South Africa to the Seychelles. Some elements of the UK’s invariably shrill dietary police may hold up their hands in horror, but the humble pork scratching is increasingly big business in an era of universal calorie-counting and health-conscious values.

The remarkable rise of Tamworth-based firm Real Pork Crackling is a real-life West Midlands entrepreneurial saga dating back to the early 1970s, creating jobs for moreentre than 50 people whilst tickling the taste buds of new generations of snack-eaters and pub drinkers. And the story is still unfolding – with the dedicated workforce at this unique Staffordshire company aiming to boost annual turnover to up to £7m as it churns out millions of packets of scratchings, crackling and pork crunch.

In the UK, scratchings are thought to have originated in the Black Country in the 1800s when they were widely consumed by the working classes. Many families in those distant days kept their own pigs as a source of food and the offcuts of fat and skin were fried and eaten by grateful Victorian parents with considerable numbers of mouths to feed.

Nearly 200 years later, butcher John Edwards found that pork scratchings were outselling everything else in his shop at Pelsall, near Walsall – and the first chapter of an enduring West Midland industrial success story was written.

Edwards, father of current Real Pork Crackling managing director Lee Edwards, backed his business instincts in the early 1970s and invested in an industrial unit and packing line just down the A5 at the Amington Industrial Estate in Tamworth. It was a decision that was to pay handsome dividends, eventually giving birth to a global brand and putting bags of extra flavour into nights out for tens of thousands of pub regulars.

Davina Spencer, who’s the sales and marketing executive at Real Pork Crackling, says: “The snack was founded in the Black Country as a Black Country treat. Over the years you saw packets in various parts of the UK – now it is all over the country in many different formats.”

Pork Crackling 04The original John Edwards Pork Scratchings business eventually became Green Top Snacks – the distinctive green bags were a familiar sight behind the bars of many West Midlands pubs in the 1970s and 80s. But the subsequent interest from a hard-driving Liverpudlian called Chris Cunliffe was to prove a turning point in the history of the Tamworth firm.

Back in 2012 Cunliffe, who had worked in the investment sector in Liverpool and London, was looking to buy and run his own business. In his own words, he lived up to the famous catchphrase of the late Victor Kiam, the wealthy American entrepreneur who bought the Remington shaver company after his wife bought him his first electric shaver.

“Yes,” chuckles Cunliffe, an unashamed fan of scratchings. “You could say I loved them so much I bought the company. It is fair to say that the business had grown predominantly before I joined. But it’s now grown even further, and we’re a global brand.

“Tyrrells Crisps had pushed things along, if you think how the UK’s crisp and nut market has matured. For a long time it was still a 1970s style sector with crap packaging. Crisps and nuts took off in the 1990s, with the likes of Walkers and Smiths – new packages, new flavours, all sorts of new ideas.

“I was looking to buy a business in 2012 I had taken 18 months off and was trawling through businesses for sale. I’d been an employee in Liverpool and London but had always wanted to work for myself.”

Cunliffe’s vision for the future of the Tamworth firm centred on cashing in on the growing demand for scratchings through investment, diversification and a constant commitment to quality with hand-cooked products largely based on rind from Large White and Durac pigs.

“It’s very much a traditional British snack but for years it was still ‘in 1972’ in terms of products and processing. Consumers were looking for alternatives to crisps and nuts – we invested heavily in our facilities, particularly how we cook and how we season.

“A hell of a lot of hard work has gone into this – it hasn’t been done overnight. Producing quality is vital and we are learning every day, you have to ensure that you are ahead of the curve.

“Today the pork snacks market in the UK is worth £30m to £35m – and the category is in double-digit growth, up 13.8% year-on-year. And we’ve gained market share at a time when the category keeps growing. People are far more interested in pork snacks these days and we have opened the category up to new consumers.”

The Real Pork Crackling business model has seen the Tamworth firm ship snacks from its homespun factory on the town’s Lichfield Road Industrial Estate to a variety of exotic locations in recent years, from Cape Town to Auckland in New Zealand, and from Cyprus to the Czech Republic. For a time, it was even delivering to well-heeled tourists on the luxury Indian Ocean paradise of the Seychelles via a van sales operation which supplied the Tamworth snacks to bars lining the white sandy beaches.

The firm’s export successes owe a great deal to the ingenuity of the Tamworth team in producing hand-cooked delicacies ranging from pork crackling seasoned with sea salt to English mustard pork crackling and jalapeno crunch.

The operation became a UK household name, with its premium products supplied in recent years to the likes of Fortnum and Mason, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Cunliffe says: “Today we supply South Africa, New Zealand, China, and the Czech Republic. Pork Crunch is very popular in China – they cannot get enough of it.”

Spencer adds: “The world’s got much smaller with the Internet. All food markets are constantly changing and the export side of the business is definitely growing. In Asia, they eat Pork Crunch with meals like they eat prawn crackers.”

Both Cunliffe and Spencer stress that quality is the key in an ever-competitive market. Cunliffe says: “We have one or two major competitors but we are the only Marks and Spencer-approved manufacturer.

“We believe we are the number one in the market for new product development. We are the only BRC (British Retail Consortium) Grade A pork snacks manufacturer. We have created new flavours, new packaging. We are pushing the envelope and everyone else is following us.

Spencer says: “Scratchings were always seen as a snack when you are in a pub with a pint – for a while they had a bad reputation. But now there are loads of ideas and flavours out there. It is all about picking the right message.”

Cunliffe adds: “Our crackling is so good that we changed the name of the company. We have gone through growing pains. It was a big gamble (for me) and we have had some really difficult times.

Pork Crackling 03

“Now we are in the big supermarkets – Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op – and have weekly analyses from all our major customers. The Midlands market is really strong for us.”

Cunliffe’s commitment to the Tamworth firm is such that he commutes daily from the Wirral on Merseyside to Staffordshire, a round trip of 240 miles, staying over one night a week. “I have got used to early starts and late finishes. My family is up there on the Wirral and the kids are at school. I have done 56,000 miles in 18 months.”

Cunliffe may be the figurehead of the scratchings factory – he has a majority stake in the business with Lee Edwards the other shareholder – but he emphasises it’s a team effort when it comes to staying at the top of the UK pork snacks sector.

“I drive the business, I drive everybody. Although I am extremely ambitious, I am very fair. We are a team here, it is not all different individuals. I have no ego – it is not me, it is us.”

And it’s also about (relatively) healthy eating, despite the widespread assumption that scratchings are a risk for the careful dieter. While pork rinds are high in sodium and fat, they’re also low in carbohydrates and are sometimes considered an alternative snack food for followers of the Atkins diet.

Cunliffe, a keen Liverpool FC fan, is justifiably proud of the progress Real Pork Crackling has made in recent years – and pulls no punches about his hopes for the company. “We are now geared for significant growth. We will have a sizeable business in five to 10 years. We are aiming to do between £6m and £7m turnover – that is huge growth for us.

“We’ve had offers for the company but we consider this a journey – there is no need to sell, we enjoy what we do here. We try to foster a family environment and we are still a private family business as such.

“This is an exciting journey and if I have a legacy it is to develop this brand. We want to be the Walkers of the pork snacks world – but there is still a lot of hard work to be done. We are still a few years away from that.”